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AICN HORROR: Dr. Karen Oughton checks out four fear-filled films from Film4 FrightFest 2014: THE LAST SHOWING! SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR! THE GUEST! DOC OF THE DEAD!

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What the &#$% is ZOMBIES & SHARKS?

Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Dr. Karen Oughton has a gaggle of reviews coming from this year’s Film4 FrightFest which took place last week! Let’s get right to the first batch!


THE LAST SHOWING (2014)

Review by Dr Karen Oughton (Twitter: @DrKarenOughton)

Knowing that Mr Freddy Krueger himself stars in this little slasher is probably enough to get most horror fans’ money on the counter. Written and directed by Phil Hawkins, THE LAST SHOWING’s premise sees a young horror enthusiast take her not-bothered boyfriend to see her choice of film, only for them to fall foul of the plans of Englund’s sly, bitter and apparently expendable ex-projectionist. What starts out about as scintillating as suspect popcorn ends up being rather fun.

Englund, complete with granddad specs, a vest and a perfectly clipped English accent varies between being an almost sentimental character with a love for the movies and being a wonderfully campy creation that allows the audience to enjoy the entertaining silliness of the escapade including its plot holes. Plus, let’s be honest, this is the guy who did Freddie trading on those iconic one liners. He’s hardly going to go all ONE HOUR PHOTO on us properly now. That said, guessing from the filming style his performance is probably at least partly credit to director Hawkins as the tone develops throughout the film rather than being skewed or haphazard. Further support in this respect comes from Keith Allen, whose natural scene chewing is turned to the film’s advantage to become part of the cackling crescendo. THE LAST SHOWING knows it’s a bit daft and runs with it, which may be deft sleight of hand from the award-wining young director who already has a stream of credits to his name.

The cinematography and sound design prevent the film from becoming just another parody and gives the story the injection of sense it needs for Englund’s character to ring true as someone who does what he does because he is a cinephile. In places a stylized camera roams through the cinema foyer watching the lights flicker on and off in a manner reminiscent of Argento and color is used to link the themes.

Unfortunately, quite some cine-traction is lost owing to the lead couple. Emily Berrington is bearable-to-okay as horror lover Allie, but Finn Jones (yes, GAME OF THRONES’ Finn Jones) as Martin is the film’s main problem. His acting in the less dramatic sequences is plain wooden and he is not helped by a clunky script which is unhelpfully highlighted (in marker pen, no less) as a main part of the plot. The writing replicates the clichés it discusses and in this role the actor has neither the charm nor the emotion to embellish this. His casting is made particularly hazardous as he is presented in a preppy little jacket and shirt and with his faux-flyaway cherub hair he comes across as a little tit you want to see horribly tortured simply because he is so terribly fond of himself. When considered against Englund’s unpretentious projectionist, Jones’ character is seriously unlikable, which hampers emotional interaction with the plot. That his acting does improve in the more dramatic moments will not only save you the cost of whatever screen you’re watching the film on but also gives the conclusion much needed emotional clout.

THE LAST SHOWING is a must for Robert Englund aficionados largely because it allows him to show his range a little more than usual and his character is (in a really odd way) quite sweet. The film gets better the longer you stay with it and the cinematography will help you over the points where you wish it were Finn-ished and on towards the suitably cutting conclusion.


SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

Review by Dr Karen Oughton (Twitter: @DrKarenOughton)

Nine years ago a film came to the screen shot through with larger than life characters (particularly one called Marv), strange colors (including that yellow bastard) and storylines harder than a broad bathing in dead man’s gin. SIN CITY’s back and man, she’s beautiful.

Reality operates differently in directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s town and sure enough we find Marv (Mickey Rourke) standing next to a car with his head in his hands looking at corpses and wondering just how in the heck he got there. Meanwhile a young buck tries his luck on a one-armed bandit with a sassy redhead and looks to be coming up aces while men drool at the leggy lovelies on the strip club stage. The plot is again interwoven around several stories including the exploits of Marv and the politics of the old and new town. While it’s true that it can get convoluted and a little repetitive, we’re here for the style.

Art direction in SIN CITY feels like what might happen if you could ingest a comic book with all its flashes of feeling and at the same time translate the milliseconds between panic and exhilaration into pictures. It shifts. One minute you are watching a beautifully rendered neo-noir in which a gorgeous temptress appears to talk directly to you, the next it is a mixture of live action against cartoon background. At times reality gets completely screwed as props spin at their masters’ accord, totally without touch. Sections such as this are actually more important than the numerous dream and hallucination sequences purely because they render the hyper-real fantasy of the city recognizable. We buy into these characters precisely because we experience their experiences, either through their eyes in POV shots or through expressionist sections where we are shown how they see themselves. Scars burn white against the night sky and all characters know they are thus objectified in this town. The reason this is important is that for the story to be this hyperbolic, we have to believe in the characters’ panache and strength of will so the filming style enables them to demonstrate their dominance. Oddly enough, much of the beautiful but stylized imagery could almost be seen as a metaphor for depression that leads them to such desperate actions, belying the series’ glamorous image.

The folk of Sin City are tricky to evaluate as it can be difficult to separate style from substance. Of the simplest characters is Marv, incredible not simply as a makeup job but because Rourke wears that character and inhabits his brain and devil-may-care attitude as much as he inhabits his bulk. Another good turn comes from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who manages to embody upstart Johnny with wit, charm and a wanton carelessness. However, the standout of the film is Josh Brolin as Dwight. He is the only actor in the whole piece that can truly embody the melodramatic style. He exudes thoughtfulness, intensity and plain old lust as the same time as being able to speak the world into life. The script is not our common tongue but a hyperbolic language that is almost Shakespearean in its connection between everyday gutterspeak and abstract poetry. When Brolin speaks, these words sound dramatic but also retain their meaning within the moment and the effect in that time is absolutely gorgeous.

Unfortunately, not all of the other actors share Brolin’s gift. Eva Green as Ava Lord is the worst offender here. Yes, she is beautiful and yes, the photography will make every fan boy and girl's heart (and other things) flutter, but all too often while she can carry an emotion (or at least make a suitable face), her words sometimes fall flat. It’s not even the case that her hollowness shows her characters’ feelings, but that the lack of lyricism in her voice makes these baroque sounds unwieldy and ever so slightly ugly to the ear at times. Dennis Haysbert as Manute also has this problem to an extent, but it isn’t as damaging for him as most of his dialogue doesn’t matter anyway. The sad thing is that this is even an issue as the aural style is part of what makes the show half believable and so terribly glamorous. It’s a shame considering that cameo players such as Lady Gaga and the inimitable Christopher Lloyd (having an awful lot of fun) hold their own.

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR is what you allow it to be. It doesn't have the same dramatic punch as its predecessor, but it largely makes up for it in sheer romance. It is episodic and feels like looking into the lives of those who live on the edge and sometimes that doesn't come tied up in a pretty bow. Some have said that it feels unfinished, but that’s because SIN CITY is endless and wow, does she have style.


THE GUEST (2014)

Review by Dr Karen Oughton (Twitter: @DrKarenOughton)

Folks, your wish fulfillment is here. From knowing, early camera pans up Maika Monroe's legs as she lies on her bed to Dan Stevens’ twisted smile and the explosive ending, THE GUEST is a fantastic exercise in how to do a crowd pleaser. Teaming up again, writer Simon Barrett couches its tropes in wry humor while there is some very clever directing and editing by Adam Wingard. The new direction works wonders for them.

Dan Stevens plays against type here as a guy who travels to the home of a former army comrade to convey his fallen mate’s final wishes to the family. Right from the start we can see Wingard is having fun as Stevens swivels to the camera with classic man-with-two-faces smoothness. He then begins to ingratiate himself with the slightly bewildered, brittle family left raw both by the loss of their son and myriad small town domestic dramas.

The linchpin of the story is the acting. Dan Stevens is not just a pretty face. He is totally convincing as a complete menace to society and as proper “Yes ma’am”ing, good American, pulling enough corny grins to be perfect for a Levi’s ad. He has also has superb comic styling. A bar scene is simply a work of art and man, oh man will you wish you were there. He’s equally adept at using his body, prompting squeals of delight at the FrightFest screening and alternatively doing the perfect slow-mo in later sequences, toeing the line between cheesy and simply owning it. Aptly, he’s supported by a reasonable cast. Brendan Meyer as the bullied Luke is a particular standout thanks to his body language and expressive eyebrows, while Leyland Orser brings a strong sense of necessary bitterness as well as levity to his role as the grieving father. The other players are similarly sound, though it must be said that Maika Monroe is a little wooden, though her comic delivery does hit its mark when it is crucial.

Art direction and general construction are noticeably good in this film. It harkens back to 80’s features such as THE TERMINATOR and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA both for sheer bombast and also a noticeable sense of happy irony as it name-checks without losing sight of its own story. It never feels it’s a pastiche as much as it is genuinely enjoying being a superhero film of sorts, but one where the badasses could exist in a small town. This particular aspect comes down in large part to Simon Barrett’s script, which combines very realistic small talk with ironic-stereotype speak. There’s also a beautifully scripted scene in a school that is so utterly bizarre and yet totally feasible as to make you wonder if it wasn’t inspired by a news report. That the actors pull it off with such careful mid-shot and close-up emphasis on the changing power dynamic is a credit to Wingard.

THE GUEST is a perfect Friday night film. The acting is great where it needs to be and it nods to old favorites without losing its own head - it has some of the best shits ‘n’ giggles action sequences this side of DIE HARD. All of it is framed against some astoundingly cocksure backgrounds that are as daft as they are fantastic. It’s a wicked little wonder to behold.


DOC OF THE DEAD (2014)

Review by Dr Karen Oughton (Twitter: @DrKarenOughton)

What would we do if zombies really did take over the world? Well they have done. Kind of. This is the premise of DOC OF THE DEAD, a well-meaning, fun and at times fascinating documentary directed by Alexandre O. Philippe that pokes a stick at the rotting ones to see why we’re so fond of them. It includes everything from faux footage to well-known talking heads and it’s a riot.

Written by Philippe and Chad Herschberger, the feature opens with newsreel footage taken from a parliament discussing the strategic interventions necessary to deal with an impromptu invasion. It’s a humorous (but not too outlandish) move before we swing back to the rather more standard documentary fare. DOC OF THE DEAD is an ambitious project that stitches together a mass of movies to tell the tale first within a filmic context. We focus on Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD while also reaching backward to I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and staggering forward to SHAUN OF THE DEAD to illustrate how the genre has changed as the myth shambled across cultures with the slave trade from Haiti to America and beyond. The goregous aspect of the film at this point is that it presents not only arguments and counter arguments for how the genre’s bodies are changing, but what that means for us in a social context. It goes beyond talking in a generalized way about zombies as representations of fear to instead talking about how their filmic variations create different effects and reflect different perceptions of humanity. Some of the analysis is fascinating and goes into an impressive amount of detail on particular standout characters, focusing on topics such as race relations and our understandings of what it might be like to be a zombie.

The film makers deserve extra credit for the cast they have involved, from industry legends such as George A. Romero and Stuart Gordon through to a number of academics who prove you can be theoretical without boring the audience into advanced rigor mortis.

What gives the documentary a little added spice is the variety of the content, for as well as discussing well-known film and TV manifestations, it also delves into dead-cultural industries such as zombie walks, Haitian law and medical information. These and the considerations of buying a zombie-proof bunker, should you be survivalist-inclined and have $10,000 or so burning a hole in your pants. There’s even a special section with none other than Bruce Campbell, whose chin falls uncomprehendingly to his chest while discussing one of his stranger career experiences – it’s absolutely barking mad as well as a brilliant indicator of how entrenched the decayed darlings are now in certain segments of mainstream culture.

Quite simply, there is phenomenal information here, all jostling together. Indeed, this is perhaps the film’s primary drawback in that it occasionally feels a little like it is lolloping from one manifestation to another. In particular there’s an initially fun but ultimately ill-advised first person POV section that dies a death before it gets anywhere. Several of the sections could also have done with a little more editing, but this is really picking at the bones of an otherwise great body.

DOC OF THE DEAD is a fun and ultimately very ambitious documentary about our desire for the often downtrodden undead. While its pacing loss a leg or two towards the end, it does a superb job of giving us zombies from across the world that should prove interesting to fright film buffs and culture vultures alike. It’s a thriller, alright.


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